Ellasaid Woodhouse, Eugenics and the Left

The Left has a very complex relationship with genetics. It produced Brave New World, the barefoot scientist, and all kinds of dreamers and debaters, nature lovers and haters. Many of the pioneers of genetic theory in the early twentieth century were committed socialists, but despite this no united political block of researchers developed. New research, as well as reconsideration of old research, brought new approaches and understandings. The field today is much less polarised. However, debate has continued for the very reasons these classical geneticists were divided. Simply put, it is the seemingly eternal question of nature versus nurture – when developments in genetics suggest that genes are deterministic, can equal opportunities be guaranteed to those at all levels of society? The authority of nature was a powerful argument both for suggesting biology held the key to social improvement and, conversely, for upholding laissez-faire attitudes. Modern scientific concerns play out similar issues from this much older debate. What talents are hereditary? Is it right to abort a child with a disability for ‘their own benefit’? Is it ignorant or simply naive to claim that nurture and opportunity are the two cardinal factors in determining a child’s course in life? A cursory look at the history of genetics yields some interesting solutions to these questions.

We begin, and will largely remain, in an age when the microscope and the family tree were the scales and sword of scientific justice. DNA was unheard of. Francis Crick was just nine years old. The astute will already know that the year under discussion is 1925. It was the same year the late Tony Benn was born. In the UK, the geneticist J. B. S. Haldane became the subject of popular interest as a result of the publication of his speech, Daedalus, or, Science and the Future.[1] It was successfully exported to America; it was this American edition that Einstein somehow obtained and then lightly annotated.[2] Meanwhile, in Chicago, H. J. Muller, a Professor of Biology at the University of Texas, enjoying an audience who were more receptive than usual to his communist beliefs, re-hashed a speech he had delivered in his senior year in 1910. It was published in 1936 as Out of the Night: A Biologist’s View of the Future after his visit to the USSR.[3] J. B. S. Haldane and H. J. Muller would become two of the most well respected scientists of their age. Alongside R. A. Fisher and Sewall Wright, Haldane quantified Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution, work which underpinned the modern evolutionary synthesis. Muller, who seemed to be just a crazy man trying to fry flies with radiation, was vindicated when the USA devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, proving in the most terrible way that radiation could cause genetic material to be modified. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1946 for his discovery of x-ray mutagenesis. Both Muller and Haldane, in essence, spent their careers trying to understand how they could apply their studies of the tiny gene to the larger human body and to society in general.

Darwin’s concept of dynamic evolution, concerning the ‘blindness’ of natural selection, gripped this generation. The key idea was that humans understood what good genetics was, while natural selection was not subjectively selective: it simply carried over those traits which were most prevalent. Consider the analogy of a child with a paper shredder told to shred documents of fewer than fifty pages who therefore put your almost complete thesis through the shredder’s teeth and claws! The issue that scientists confronted was that the most numerous genes, those that built the coming generations, were not the ‘fittest’. State provision of food, greater access to effective medicine and similar benefits of the modern world were countering Malthusian checks. There was clear potential, it was argued, for a rise of “throwbacks”, “defectives”, and “degenerates”.[4] The ideas were labelled “[white] race suicide” and worded in terms of the destruction of civilization, making the direct link to intellectual, moral, and cultural civilisation as well.[5] The rediscovery of Mendelian genetics in the early nineteenth century showed there were traits which could not be detected as phenotype: recessive genes. Recessive genes were difficult to identify in the interwar years. If defects were not expressed in the phenotype, then eugenics needed to be much more thorough than simply targeting what was visibly “abnormal”. Eugenics was seen as ultimately necessary, a science to save society from itself.

Ideas of ‘good birth’ – eugenics – proliferated in society at the turn of the twentieth century. However active participation in eugenics societies and overtly eugenic causes was low. The reasons for this continue to be debated but there does seem to be consensus by historians that many people held eugenic beliefs, though would have rejected the label of eugenicist. An analogous situation is found in modern feminism. Many who agree wholeheartedly with feminist objectives are still troubled by adopting the label ‘feminist’.

Both Muller and Haldane had a brilliant and vivid belief in genetic determinism. They believed that sociability, intelligence, altruism, cooperation, and creativity could be isolated genetically and bred for. It was an age when other socialist thinkers were taking apart the dogma laid down in Francis Galton’s Hereditary Genius of 1869.[6] Many such as Caleb Saleeby agreed with Galton that talent was to some extent heritable, but they also knew that social conditions had to be controlled for this to be determined.[7] Others, such as Marie Stopes, who have often been bequeathed to socialism by history rather than by their own conviction, were espousing greater use of contraception. This was to prevent certain women from having too many children.[8] It was believed these ‘useless mouths’, as popular rhetoric would have it, would only drag down rather than contribute to society. This was couched very much in class, race and disability prejudice. It was these two issues – recognizing talent, particularly sociability, as something that could be bred for, and the fact that there were many purportedly non-contributing members of society who would always take more than they could ever need – which Haldane and Muller, independently, sought to address. A true socialist state would emerge from a complete genetic regeneration of humanity. Monopoly capitalism and greed had worn down society so much that only a true science of society could raise it to achieve ‘greatness’ that would benefit all members. Both Haldane and Muller were committed communists at this point, as was quite fashionable with scientists, who saw the Party as the only true progressives and whose strong links to the Labour Party did not give it the radical connotations it has today. Muller and Haldane, unlike many of their moderate colleagues, believed that change could only happen though revolutionary methods. Both had rather complex relationships with revolution. Muller saw it as a necessary pre-requisite. Haldane, much more ambiguous, saw his changes coming as dialectic with society, one side of which though was most probably formed by enlightened socialist-scientist-politicians.

Haldane believed that social conventions needed to radically change in tandem with a proliferation of contraceptive materials. This would mean that two complete strangers, who both had exceptional genetic material would be asked by a “glorified medical board”[9] to give genetic material for use in ectogenesis (the term he coined for what we now call in vitro fertilisation). Only a few people could be allowed to propagate the next generation. Of course, they would not physically be doing any propagating. Accordingly, he added another criterion to Marxism-Leninism’s understanding of the proletariat. Those who would forward the interests of the working classes would not just be the down-trodden workers – they had to be healthy, fit, down-trodden workers.

Beyond this vision of sexual liberation juxtaposed with closely controlled reproduction, he proposed that all aspects of the natural world would be geared towards human need. Society would be powered by thousands of wind-farms, and by a nitrogen fixing algae which would allow plants to grow in the roughest conditions. Haldane’s overactive imagination and whimsical sense of humour informed us that this algae had by accident turned the sea purple. The current debates around genetically-modified crops, especially following Owen Patterson’s comment that without them Europe would be a “museum of world farming”, adds an interesting cotemporary angle to this.[10] Aldous Huxley, a friend of Haldane’s, understood why Haldane saw himself as trying to truly liberate all members of society but rightly recognised the sinister consequences if these scientist-politicians were not to share the same egalitarian views of Haldane. Thus Brave New World can perhaps be read as a twisted version of Daedalus.[11]

Muller, though a strong proponent of genetic determinism, recognised the large role that the family played in a child’s healthy development. He was also much more cautious than Haldane with regards to whether his ideas on genetics would one day be possible. He therefore waited until a macaque had given birth via artificial insemination before presenting his own views on the subject to the world. Muller believed that a couple could be in a happy, loving marriage even if the baby that the mother was carrying was not related to the male partner in the marriage. The question of whether he would have condoned same-sex partners would probably have been a resounding yes. Muller was deeply concerned that wealth masked genetic load and believed that society, through politicians and health professionals, allowed people who were economically privileged, but mentally or socially deficient, to breed, and worse, to be put in a position of power.[12] However at this point, to our modern minds, Muller stops being rational.

Muller proposed eutelegenesis, the artificial insemination of sperm of ‘great men’ into suitable mothers. His model allows for some natural reproduction but only of the most genetically well-endowed. What traits these people had is not clearly defined but would presumably have been based on intelligence, altruism, cooperation, and creativity. Sperm would be cryogenically preserved for twenty years after the death of the man so he could be evaluated for his intellectual or societal merit. This would allow society to exponentially grow in various talents, generation upon generation. Though he was side-lined for his political beliefs, through various connections he gained the ears of some reputable people. The now closed Nobel Prize sperm bank is in fact called the Hermann J. Muller Repository for Germinal Choice. He also advocated the use of renewable energy sources and greening of the desert, for human production of crops. Indeed, one commentator has said that his book Out of the Night could have been one of the most influential manifestos of the twenty-first century. Muller had the book translated into Russian with a personalised introduction; it was even read by Stalin. The change in Stalin’s views on the sanctity of the family by 1936 is exemplified by his banning of abortion that year. However, in general he was a keen supporter of genetics research.

Stalin supported Trofim Lysenko whose long-term adherence to Lamarckian genetics had vast consequences for socialist scientists both inside and outside of the USSR. Lamarckian genetics, which argued that traits that are developed in an organism’s lifetime can be passed to their offspring, was sheltered in the USSR long after it was largely shown to have been largely false by scientists elsewhere. Saying this, the rise in Lamarckian genetics in the past few years has been an interesting development. Controversial research in the emerging field of epigenetics has suggested that large environmental changes that affect a person’s body such as famine or food preferences may have a heritable effect on DNA due to the changes in the pattern of attached methyl groups. Thus children could be born with lowered metabolisms or a predisposition to eat certain foods. This may or may not lead to a reconsideration of scientific history, particularly of the barefoot scientist, Lysenko. Lysenko believed that wheat could be trained to grow in Russia’s cold spring conditions through a process called vernalisation, and thus provide food for people living in the regions where the ground was frozen solid for most of the year. Muller attacked Lysenko’s theories and his whole system of research. In doing so he questioned Stalin and Soviet science’s independence from bourgeois capitalist concerns; an independence that Lysenko was seen to champion.[13] After a stint performing blood transfusions in the Spanish Civil War, Haldane was forced to leave the USSR in 1936. His Mendelian colleagues in Moscow, such as Nikolai Vavilov, were not so lucky and ended their lives in a Gulag camp. Muller’s his connection to the USRR meant that no one wanted to support his research into x-ray mutagenesis. He was black-listed by the West for being a communist sympathiser and blocked by the USSR for not conducting research that followed a Lamarckian thoery of genetics. A similar conundrum faced many left-wing geneticists. It was not until well into the 1960s that Lysenkoism stopped being the Soviet trump card and Khrushchev and his successors began funding other genetic projects. In the UK, the focus also changed from trying to synthesise character traits and large scale programs to particular issues: quantifying intelligence, fighting for abortion, and allowing the NHS to prescribe contraception to (married) women. The solving of the chemical structure of DNA in 1953 changed the field and made people re-evaluate their views of genetics and eugenics. However, it was the depraved experiments of the Nazi regime in Germany, often carried out by former colleagues of Muller and Haldane, which put a large blanket over the chip fire of eugenics and utopian genetics. The civil rights movement in the USA and increased migration of non-Europeans to the West brought home the fact that ‘scientific advance’ was tied to normative views of social hierarchy. Divisions arose between science and society, engendered by concerns regarding how far scientific advances should be the concern of politicians and the social responsibility of scientists.

We can see these concerns being re-enacted in issues of NHS reform, in the debates on fracking, in campaigns to eliminate Female Genital Mutilation, in controversies over giving blood in Northern Ireland, in psychometric testing and profiling, in child care provisions. In the realm of human genetic modification, the question about how far nature has been granted a place in understanding human capability continues to influence debate today across the whole spectrum of the Left. Muller and Haldane are important to understanding this, not just because they allow us to see a broad spectrum of eugenic beliefs and prevent the term being used to tar certain groups. They exemplify the broad range of debate that should be encouraged when facing questions of nature and nurture, science and politics. Most importantly they ask two things: if certain abilities or traits are genetically predisposed, how do we incorporate them into a society that aims not to discriminate. Furthermore, studying Haldane and Muller illuminate a vision of a world where science and politics are one. It asks the reader to question the incursion of public policy into scientific initiative. The great irony of Muller and Haldane is that they both envisioned a future lead by scientist politicians but they spent much of their lives fighting against this in the context of Lysenko and the USSR. When it comes to the questions above, the solutions proposed lie in the realms of education, social work, healthcare, and research. Behind these lies the question of whom: who will effectively tackle these issues and, given the power to do so, what are their agendas? To what extent should there be such interference as epitomised by the views of Muller and Haldane and will interference produce the kinds of systems envisaged by the two geneticists? What happens when it is not just individuals, communities, or national governments, but world systems, on the level that Muller and Haldane imagined, which are suddenly asking questions of genetics?

These are questions which I think are not often enough seen in terms of the conflict between scientific research and political prerogative. Reading Muller and Haldane almost always provokes an emotional response. However, by gaining a deeper understanding of how their views diverged and how their socialist and scientific attitudes converged means people can develop their own political view of genetics, and explore the insights this most controversial of sciences offers to contemporary political debate.


Ellasaid Woodhouse is a third year reading History at Jesus College with a particular focus on left-wing ideology within the history of medicine.



[1] See J. B. S. Haldane, Daedalus, or, Science and the Future: a paper read to the Heretics, Cambridge, on February 5th 1923 (London: K. Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1924); transcribed online at <http://vserver1.cscs.lsa.umich.edu/~crshalizi/Daedalus.html&gt; [accessed 1 May 2014].

[2] Krishna R. Dronamraju, Haldane’s Daedalus Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995); Rubin, Charles T, ‘Daedalus and Icarus Revisited’, The New Atlantis, 8.1 (2005), 73-91, p. 74.

[3] H. J. Muller, Out of the Night: A Biologist’s View of the Future (London: V. Gollancz, 1936).

[4] H. H. Goddard, The Kallikak Family: A Study of the Hereditary of Feeble-mindedness (New York: Macmillan, 1927; repr. Charleston: BiblioBazaar, 2008).

[5] Lothrop Stoddard, The Revolt Against Civilization: The Menace of the Under Man (London: Chapman & Hall, 1922).

[6] Francis Galton, Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences (London: Macmillan, 1869; repr. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2006). Web.

[7] Caleb Saleeby, Methods of Race Regeneration (London, 1911). Web.

[8] Marie Carmichael Stopes, Married Love, 2nd edn (London: 1918; repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). Regarding the term ‘useless mouths’: she did not coin the term, but certainly supported the idea.

[9] Haldane, Deadalus.

[10] Owen Paterson, ‘Opportunity in Agriculture’, 7 January 2014 <https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/opportunity-in-agriculture&gt; [accessed 30 May 2014].

[11] See Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (London: Chatto & Windus, 1932; repr. Vintage, 2007).

[12] H. J. Muller, ‘The Dominance of Economics over Eugenics’, The Scientific Monthly, 37.1 (1933), 40-47.

[13] Elof Axel Carlson, ‘Speaking out about the social implications of science: the uneven legacy of H. J. Muller’, Genetics, 187.1 (2011), 1-7.

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